Burma: new airstrikes on Kachin rebels

The Burmese military on Jan. 2 claimed responsibility for several air-strikes against Kachin rebel positions in the country's north—less than a day after the government denied that the strikes had taken place. The military statement said that "an assault mission, utilizing air-strikes, was carried out" in the strategic Lajayang region, less than 13 kilometers from the rebels' headquarters in Laiza. This contradicts an earlier government claim that it was only using air forces to "deliver food supplies to its troops" and "to provide security for the workers who are repairing roads and bridges."

A video shot by the Free Burma Rangers aid group and released by the BBC shows attack helicopters firing on the ground and military jets flying over territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The army insists the air strikes were necessary to reclaim a route used to deliver supplies to their outposts in Lajayang, after rebels ignored an ultimatum to pull back from the area. Rebels say they refused because they feared the demand was a ruse to permit an attack on their headquarters.

The BBC said the footage and witness accounts suggest that the army is going beyond President Thein Sein's public instructions that military forces in Burma's restive north only fight in self-defense—raising questions about whether the armed forces are really under the government's control. 

The KIA also charged that China is cooperating in the renewed military campaign, and that the Burmese jets had used Chinese airspace to attack rebel positions near the border.

Over a hundred protestors marched through the streets of Rangoon on Jan. 1 to call for an end to the bloody conflict, which has displaced over 75,000 people since fighting was renewed in June 2011 after a 17-year truce. Free Burma Rangers reports last year accused Burmese soldiers of rapes and other atrocities in Kachin villages. (Democratic Voice of Burma, BBC News, Asian Correspondent, Jan. 2; Free Burma Rangers, Oct. 23)

Kachin territory is in northern Burma's opium-growing heartland, and international officials are expressing concern of a new poppy boom there—ironically as a consequence of recent successes against opium production in Afghanistan. "We are concerned about the [resulting] changes that may occur in the marketplace in Myanmar and Laos, where production could increase," said Gary Lewis, Southeast Asia representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "If the opium coming from Afghanistan drops by a third, then it could well increase by that much here."

Burma, which was long the world's leading opium producer, was overtaken by Afghanistan in 1991. It is today the second largest producer, behind Afghanistan and ahead of neighboring Laos. (The Irrawady, AFP, Dec. 13)